Concern grows for southern resident killer whales as US Navy seeks ability to incidentally harm marine mammals

PHOTO BY SARA HYSONG-SHIMAZU/ Wild Orca

Tyler Hay


The United States Navy is seeking permission to incidentally harm marine mammals through testing and training activities in the Pacific Northwest. Conservation groups have expressed concern for southern resident killer whales after the US Navy  submitted an application to the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) which would allow them to harm up to 51 marine mammals a year over a seven year period.

“The Navy should not be engaging in any sort of activities within the known vicinity of southern resident killer whales because there are too few of these killer whales on the planet — there are only 72 of them in existence right now,” said Dr. Deborah Giles, research biologist at the University of Washington Centre for Conservation and Biology and science and research director at Wild Orca, a conservation group opposed to the legislation. 

The cases of harassment would fall under what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls “Level B harassment” — behavioural disruption and/or temporary deafening of a mammal.

“The Navy has not requested, nor did NMFS propose to authorize, take of killer whales by Level A harassment or serious injury or mortality from Navy training and testing activities in the NWTT [North West Training and Testing] study area,” said Kate Goggin, public affairs specialist for NOAA in an email to Mid Island Independent.  

Some of the most important feeding grounds for southern resident killer whales are in Canadian waters, according to Misty MacDuffee, Wild Salmon program director and biologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation. She said she is concerned Canadians have not been consulted about the application and have not had an opportunity provide comments.

PHOTO BY SARA HYSONG-SHIMAZU/ Wild Orca

“Everyone has grievance with the US Navy for conducting these activities, but equally, the National Marine Fishery Service has failed to do their job adequately in conveying to the public the extent of harm that may be incurred to the southern residents,” said MacDuffee.

The NOAA gathered comments online from June 2 to July 17 to gauge public opinion on the application. A letter sent to the NMFS by Wild Orca, along with 27 other American conservation groups, advocated for more mitigation measures for the Navy to reduce its impact on southern resident orcas.

“Given the small size of the endangered southern resident orca population today, and the fact that they travel in groups, harm to a single individual orca can easily mean a population-level effect. Harm to 51 endangered orcas, or 68 per cent of the population, will certainly mean a population-level effect,” reads the letter.

The letter also said new technology allows real-time tracking of whales in the Salish Sea. “Using this technology could expand the ability of the Navy’s marine mammal observers to be aware of and respond to the presence of southern resident orcas,” it reads.

The letter expresses concerns of the likelihood the same animals will be affected multiple times throughout the seven years.

“These are things that can have real consequences for the physical wellbeing of the individual animals and therefore, the whole population,” said Giles.

Testing activities would take place only in American waters, but Giles said the impacts could be felt by marine life on the British Columbia side of the Salish Sea.

“Sound carries much farther underwater than it does above water, so any sort of Navy explosion that might be occurring in the Navy testing area off the west side of Washington State is absolutely going to be heard in BC waters,” she said.

A petition against the proposed regulation, which is not affiliated with Wild Orca, has collected close to 38,000 signatures. It focuses not only on southern resident killer whales, but all marine mammals that can potentially be harmed.

Because the application is in a preliminary phase, Fisheries and Oceans Canada declined to comment on the US Navy’s activities.

Goggin said the NOAA aims to make a final decision on the proposal in November.

2 thoughts on “Concern grows for southern resident killer whales as US Navy seeks ability to incidentally harm marine mammals

  1. Thank you Tyler Hay for publishing this article. Hopefully with public awareness, we can all come together to encourage Fisheries and Oceans Canada to get involved and not sit idly by as the NOAA makes a decision one way or the other in November 2020. We need to save these critically endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales in the Salish Sea from a further loss in numbers, and ultimately extinction.

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